Landowners want compensation following massive fire PDF Print
Local Content - Local News
Written by Marcia Love   
Monday, 19 March 2012 20:43

Farmers and ranchers who had property destroyed in last week's prairie fire want to receive compensation from CP Rail if a passing train is found to be the cause of the 20-square-mile blaze. An investigation is being conducted to determine the cause of the fire, which ripped through about six farmyards and damaged a house in its path between Hatton and Royal Edward Road on March 13. The fire is suspected to have started along the railway about 25 miles northwest of Maple Creek in the afternoon.
The fire broke out on the property of Calvin and Susan Siegle, which the railway runs through. The couple is still assessing the amount of damage to their property, but Calvin said about five quarter sections were burned. A grain trailer, flat deck trailer, stock trailer and other equipment were also lost. The fire was threatening to consume the Siegles' house, but volunteers were able to extinguish the flames that had reached their deck.
Calvin attributes the prairie fire to the lay of the land where the tracks pass through.
"I think it has to do with the curve of the track and the incline... so (the engines are) really pulling hard when they go west and it causes more sparks," he explained.
It's an issue the rancher said he has been dealing with for more than 50 years.
"All my life I've fought at least a couple fires a year caused by the CPR, as far as we're concerned," he stated. "The risk is always there every time it doesn't snow or hasn't rained. We always wonder when we come over the hill, is our house going to be standing?"
Mike and Pauline Pearce, who farm 16 miles northwest of town, lost a stack of 1,000 hay bales and had two pieces of machinery damaged. The fire also burned about two quarter sections on their property.
Pauline said the fire came within 50 yards of their house and was threatening to burn their corrals and buildings.
"Some of our trees did catch, but there were three guys that stopped it... just as it was starting to get around the corrals, and then it would've taken off to the house," she explained. "The wind shifted and changed the path of the fire, because at one time it was directly headed towards our house, and then the winds changed and it missed us more and got (neighbouring farmland)."
Much of the couple's grazing land was burned, but Pauline said they have other land for their herd to graze. While she expects they will be able to seed enough land to feed their own cattle this year, Pauline said they may not have any to sell.
The Pearces anticipate they will be spending at least $20,000 on replacing burned fence posts. Pauline hopes they will be compensated by CP, should it be found responsible for the massive fire.
"They should be replacing the fences from here all the way to  (the neighbours). That's going to be a lot of miles and thousands of posts," she stated. "If you start a fire, you're responsible for it, so the CPR should account for what they're doing, too."
Kevin Hrysak, a spokesperson for CP Rail, said that while the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the railway has a claims division to handle issues of fires caused by passing trains.
"Our claims department would deal with that in that regard if it's proven that we were the cause," he stated.
According to Hrysak, CP was informed of the fire two hours or more after the last train passed through the area.
When fires occur by the railway tracks, Hrysak said crews do what they can to assist in extinguishing it.
"We did help out in this instance as well – not to a large extent because we didn't have a water truck, but we did have crews out there with water containers and things trying to put out fire in certain spots near our tracks," he stated.
But Calvin said he was disappointed by CP's lack of assistance.
While nearby oil and gas companies aid in putting out grass fires, Calvin said CP has done little to help in firefighting efforts. He noted a CP truck entered their yard during the fire, but drove past him and quickly left.
"All the other neighbours came and helped put out the fires, but where was the CPR?" he said, adding he doesn't blame local CP employees, as they receive orders from their head office.
Hrysak said he can't recall the number of times CP has received word of trains reportedly causing fires, but he noted it is an issue that is dealt with year-round.
To reduce the risk of fires, regular maintenance checks are conducted on the locomotives, he said.
"We have spark arresters in our exhaust vents to prevent sparks from coming out," Hrysak explained. "It's something we take very seriously."
When CP was notified of the grass fire, Hrysak said the train which had recently passed through the area was stopped and an inspection conducted.
"(We) found nothing out of the ordinary that would indicate it would have led to this, but it's under investigation," he said.
If sparks from a passing train are found to be the cause of the fire, Calvin said he wants CP to cover all losses incurred by local landowners.
"I think they should pay for the whole thing from one end to the other," he stated. "We consider the CPR to be our neighbour, so be responsible. We can't prevent all fires and accidents, but at least if they're responsible for it, they should do the right thing."
The house which was hit by the fire was unoccupied for about a month when the fire struck. Jason and Regan Knight are thankful they moved out of the residence before the grass fire ripped through the area.
The couple and their four children temporarily moved into the house after they lost their home in a chimney fire in January.
"We're very fortunate that we missed this one, but I still feel affected because of the neighbours. They lost a lot," Regan said. "It's upsetting, but I'm thankful that none of them lost their homes, and hopefully they can rebuild."
The fire commissioner's report on the cause of the fire is expected to be released this week.

 
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